Meet Dr. Steven Koonin, who’s bringing Downtown to its CUSP

August 13, 2012 By Mike Weiss For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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As Downtown Brooklyn prepares to greet its CUSP — the Center for Urban Science and Progress, a cooperative effort of NYU-Poly and the Applied Sciences NYC Program of the city’s Economic Development Corporation — the center’s founding director, Dr. Steven Koonin, discussed the undertaking with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Dr. Koonin is a theoretical physicist who grew up near McDonald Avenue and studied at MIT and the California Institute of Technology. After three decades in academia, he went to work for British Petroleum as its chief scientist, focusing on alternative and renewable energy sources. Later, he directed the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, overseeing a $5 billion budget and the big science projects it supports.

That’s where he became curious about the relationship between social issues and the search for and use of energy resources a curiosity that in a circuitous way would lead him back home.

“Cities are both the source of our problems in the future but are also the place where their solutions are going to come from,” Dr. Koonin said.

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We spoke in his office at MetroTech.

Where did you grow up in Brooklyn?

My house was on Dahill Road and the nearest big streets were McDonald Avenue and Avenue O­, right on the borderline between Bensonhurst and Midwood. I went to P.S. 226 then J.H.S. 96, Seth Low Junior High, and then Stuyvesant High School.

Was there something about having grown up in Brooklyn that may have affected your approach to physics or life?
It may be hard to separate the place from the time. When I grew up there was always a lot of junk around, basements and garages full of old “stuff” you could play with, take apart, and then use to build new things. It was also unsheltered. My own kids grew up in Southern California where you needed a car to go anywhere, but here, once I got beyond age 10 or 11, I had the run of the city. There was the subway system and this whole big city out there to explore, and I liked that very much.

From 2009 to 2011 you lived in Washington, D.C., where you were the Under Secretary for Science in the Department of Energy. During your tenure there, was there a project that you were especially excited about?
One project that I’ve had a long association with is Inertial Confinement Fusion, where you take a big laser big as in the size of an aircraft hanger and use it to heat and compress a small amount of hydrogen in very short time scale, like 10 nanoseconds, in order to get it hot enough and dense enough where it will fuse and release energy. The government has been pursuing a program for this for at least 40 years, and it’s reaching culmination, almost as we speak, in a very large laser built over the last decade at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. There are good reasons to expect we have a chance of succeeding this time.

And this might provide a new source of energy?
So why are we doing it? For three reasons, one is basic science it creates conditions of temperature and pressure that cannot be reached anywhere else in the laboratory, so it allows us to study materials as they might be found in the center of planets or in stars. Secondly, it’s very important in providing data for doing experiments associated with the nuclear stockpile, making sure those weapons remain safe and reliable. And the third reason is that maybe, in the long-term, it will be useful for making energy.

How would you officially describe a new research center like CUSP?
CUSP is a public-private partnership that uses New York City as a laboratory and a classroom, and it sits at the intersection of two simple but big ideas. The first big thing is that it’s about cities — half the world’s people now live in cities, by the middle of the century 80 percent will.

Cities are where people are so they’re where resources get consumed, but cities are also disproportionate generators of economic activity and of innovation. As one of my friends says, cities are both the source of our problems in the future but are also the place where their solutions are going to come from. So for these reasons, cities have to be as good as they can be if we’re going to solve the world’s problems.

The second big idea is “data.” The world is in the middle of a data revolution, we’re getting really good at sensing, transmitting, storing, and analyzing data.

The notion is to apply these big-data techniques to cities — so why would we want to do that?  As a scientist, you can’t improve what you can’t measure, so I want baselines for energy use, mobility, health, and air quality, all the things we can measure about a city. Nobody has really tried to do that before in both a synthetic and synoptic way and in doing this, we’ll also be demonstrating new solutions, developing new research, and educating people in these fields.

What interested you about CUSP enough that it convinced you to return to New York?
I had been in the energy business for about eight years, first with BP and then for two and a half years with the Department of Energy. There are many reasons why we need to improve our energy system but the usual response from academics is, “Let’s go do new technology” solar cells, wind turbines, biofuels. All that is great but when you look at the scale, incumbency, and longevity of energy assets you realize that technologies like these are going to take decades to change. And the barriers to doing so are largely societal — the economics, policies, politics, cultures.

So I started thinking how could you tackle those barriers as opposed to going out and inventing some new widget, and realized that big data was the way to make that connection.

One of the things that will make CUSP so powerful, and was a major attractant for me, is the opportunity to take the data and the modeling from the engineers at NYU-Poly and blend it with NYU’s social science expertise to deal with these same problems. If we can do that more intensively within a neighborhood around Downtown Brooklyn, that could be really interesting.

What will be CUSP’s effect on downtown Brooklyn?
In the short term I think the largest impact will be the “buzz” that we are trying to build a very innovative research center that will hopefully draw from, and feed into, many of the activities going on in the area. Secondly, we’ll bring in a flow of world-class scientists and talented students. And third, we would like to establish a “living laboratory.”

The details remain to be worked out, but the idea is to use the neighborhood around us, plus or minus 20 blocks, as a demonstration of what you can learn about cities, how you can understand them, what kind of data you can collect, and hopefully use it to improve them, whether it’s in traffic flow or energy efficiency or health-related issues.

I know a man in Park Slope who’s working on using social networking to make people aware of the amount of sewage that enters the Gowanus Canal when it rains heavily. His idea is that if people in the area only knew what pollution they were contributing, they would use less water when it rained. Would projects like this fall within what CUSP is trying to do?

Part of CUSP’s vision is to make a lot of data just available to people, so they can see. Whether it’s because you’re a concerned citizen or maybe you’re an entrepreneur developing an app to use that data — or you’re a teacher or a school kid — we want to allow people to have access to data so they can start understanding the city, what the problems are, and how they can help with the solutions.

When I was in elementary school, this was probably second grade or so, one of the things that made a big impact on me was when the teacher said, “go out and make a map of your neighborhood, take a week and draw a map.” I learned a tremendous amount just doing that, about the streets, the angles between the streets, where things were. Fast forward now fifty years and we can do so much more for school kids. I can’t think of anything that’s more compelling to get someone engaged in science than studying the neighborhood and the city around them and how it works.

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